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They shall inherit: understanding inheritance and wills

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Death is not something most people want to think about, which is perhaps part of the reason why about 45% of Australians do not have a valid will. If you want to make sure the assets you've worked hard for go to the right people, then having a valid legal will is a must.

If you die without a will, known as dying intestate, your estate will be distributed according to a government formula. Even if you have a will you need to make sure it is up to date and reflects your current situation.

There are a number of ways you can make a will. You can have a lawyer draw one up, but this can be expensive. Expect to pay about $200 to $300 if your affairs are relatively straightforward and upwards of $500 if things are more complicated. The public trustee office in your state can draw up your will and although it charges little or no fees it usually insists on being the executor of your estate and charges a fee to do so.

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If you're more budget-conscious, you may consider using a do-it-yourself will kit, which you can find at the newsagent or post office or download online from companies such as www.aussielegal.com.au, www.diywillkit.net.au, www.legalwills.com.au and www.legalwill.com.au. These are significantly cheaper at about $25-$30.

You should only ever consider a DIY will if your affairs are simple - for example, if you have only a few beneficiaries and straightforward possessions such as your home and household goods. If your affairs are more complicated - for example, you have children with special needs or from more than one relationship, have assets like shares and managed funds or own a business - then it's probably best to seek expert advice and have a professional draft your will. If you decide to take the DIY route, it's vital that you fill in the will correctly; otherwise it will be void, so the savings will be worthless.

A common mistake is for the will not to be witnessed and signed correctly. Rules vary from state to state, but as a general rule the witness should not be your spouse or de facto or someone who will inherit anything. Other possible mistakes include leaving everything to your spouse but not providing an alternative if the spouse dies first, or leaving people certain things and not including a residue clause to cover everything else.

If you're not confident you've filled in your will correctly, you can get a professional to look at it. For $135 a solicitor will review what you've done. See the "solicitor will" option at www.legalwill.com.au. Keep in mind there's no point having a will if no one can find it after you die. Once you have made a will, keep it in a safe place and make sure your family knows where it is.

Getting it right

There are a lot of things to think about when drafting your will. Here are some key considerations:

Who do you want to act as executor? The executor will carry out your wishes, pay off your debts and basically represent you. You can nominate one or more people and they can be family members or friends. Your executor can also be a benficiary.

If you prefer you can use a solicitor or public trustee to act as executor, but they will take a fee from your estate to do so. Also if you choose only one executor, it's a good idea to list a back-up if your original executor dies before you.

How do you want your assets distributed - that is, who gets what? Ideally you should be as specific as possible and include a "residual" clause for items not specified in your will.

Do you want any of your estate to go to charity and, if so, which charity would you like to benefit?

What sort of send-off would you like? Be as specific as possible about you're preferred funeral arrangements, from the type of casket to whether you want a burial or cremation.

How do you feel about organ donation? If you want to be an organ donor, it's a good idea to include that in your will.

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Maria Bekiaris is editorial campaigns manager for Canstar and former deputy editor of Money. She holds a Bachelor's degree in business.
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